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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Fair
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'Bach in a Backpack' series gives early risers a tuneful fix
Randal Harrison's redeye recitals result in ambitious trial run

Randal Harrison would like to dispel a rumor. It's about classical music, which he's played - and enjoyed - since he was 6.

Some people say that classically trained musicians can't shatter the mold that formed them, that they can only think in terms of the technical skills required to play Beethoven symphonies and Bach concerti. They say violinists like Harrison, raised on the Suzuki Method of classical music training (he also teaches it), haven't got what it takes to swing or rock. They insist that violins belong in concert halls, not coffee shops and clubs.

Au contraire, Harrison says: "The skills you acquire while learning a piece with [Suzuki], especially by listening to it, can be applied to any style of music. When I teach improv, that's the first thing I do: give the students permission to hear the music and try a line that scares them."

Harrison's not just talking the talk. He's taking his message to the streets - and taking classical, jazz, tango and lots of jaw-dropping improvisation to Madison coffeehouses like Mother Fool's and Mermaid Cafe in a series called "Bach in a Backpack."

The series isn't completely new. Harrison launched it in the 1990s after trading his Bon Iver-style existence in northern Wisconsin for family life in Madison. When his daughter was a year old and his wife returned to work, he started playing at coffee shops as the sun rose and people stopped in for their first cup of joe. This way, he was able to return home by 9 a.m. to care for the baby - plus, he'd already gotten caffeinated and done some practicing. With his fingers warmed up, he was able to jump into his other musical tasks: composing, teaching and playing with groups like Honor Among Thieves (the local jam band with a bluesy twist) and the Randal Harrison Trio (a jazz ensemble that incorporates Indian music, Argentine tango and the funky side of Appalachian Americana).

The experiment proved too difficult back then, but now that his daughter's 11, he's reprised the series for a trial run through the end of the year. The sets are similar, with plenty of jazz and some beautiful cello suites from the Suzuki repertoire, arranged for violin, plus lots of other surprises. It's also a place for Harrison to test-run his original compositions, transforming music for films and groups of musicians into dynamic solo performances.

The best part, though, is watching his off-the-cuff melodies take shape. Bach's friends knew him for his harpsichord improvising long before he hit the big time, and Harrison's may make you dust off the old fiddle, clarinet or piano after you've downed your latte.

Bach in a Backpack
Mother Fool's, Dec. 21 & 28, 10 am
Mermaid Cafe, Dec. 22 & 31, 11:30 am

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